At 3-0 and in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Valparaiso men's basketball team finds itself in a new position: The Crusaders are the team everyone wants to beat.
Less than two weeks ago, Valparaiso (10-6, 3-0) looked like a middle-of-the-pack MVC team based on projection systems like KenPom.com’s. Now, coach Matt Lottich’s squad should have the full attention of Southern Illinois (9-7, 2-1), the MVC’s No. 3 team in its preseason poll.
With a higher profile and potentially without leading scorer Ryan Fazekas, Valparaiso’s visit to Carbondale, Illinois, on Saturday offers plenty of challenges.
“I’ve never been there, but I’ve been hearing they are very hostile. The fans are all over the place,” freshman point guard Daniel Sackey said. “Yeah, one of our leading scorers is out, but that doesn’t mean my job has to change.”
Fazekas averages 12.7 points per game and leads Valparaiso in 3-point shooting at 44.0 percent — nearly 7 percentage points higher than the next qualified Crusader. Lottich said Fazekas is officially day-to-day and that his right ankle sprain looked worse at the time than it turned out to be, but he wasn’t present at the portion of Thursday’s practice that was open to the media.
If Fazekas doesn’t play, Valparaiso has one less shooter that Southern Illinois has to stay home on. At the same time, however, the Crusaders hope their depth and balance will help dull the blow of losing their top scorer.
Four other players average double double digits for Valparaiso: Derrik Smits (11.9 ppg.), Javon Freeman-Liberty (11.1), Bakari Evelyn (10.5) and Markus Golder (10.3). Junior center Jaume Sorolla has offered more recently as he recovers from a sprained ankle of his own.
“We don’t necessarily call a lot of stuff for anyone,” Lottich said. “We try to find the best shot for our team. So I don’t think it’ll change much, but you are taking out a guy that can fill up a scoreboard pretty quick, so in that regard, it’ll be a change.”
Sorolla’s return to form provides extra value against the Salukis, who leaned on senior center Kavion Pippen while leading scorer Armon Fletcher sat out with a six-game suspension. Pippen averages 11.9 points per game on 61.9 percent shooting, and he ranks first among MVC players in blocking 8.8 percent of opponents’ 2-point shots, according to KenPom.com.
With Sorolla playing “awfully well,” per Lottich, Valparaiso has multiple bodies to throw at the 6-foot-10 Pippen. Sorolla said he and redshirt junior Smits need to stay out of foul trouble but can have success if they stay on the court.
“Watching film on (Pippen), he’s better than I thought,” Lottich said. “So I’m glad we do have two guys that can guard him. We’re gonna have to do our best, because he’s awfully talented, and he’s playing at a very high rate right now.”
Fletcher scored 21 points in an 82-70 loss at Drake on Tuesday in his return from suspension, and the versatile senior wing averaged 22 points per game in two games against Valparaiso last season. The Crusaders don’t look anything like last year’s team that went 6-12 in MVC play, however.
In fact, they don’t even look like the group that went 5-6 against Division I teams over this season’s nonconference slate.
“I would say we’re all starting to buy in to what coaches are telling us, fully,” Sackey said. “No matter what they’re asking us to do, we all just make sure we’re doing our jobs. … (Winning) shows whatever they’re getting across, it’s obviously working.”